Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How to Write Good Dialogue Part Two

In part one of How to Write Good Dialogue we talked about avoiding "Q&A" sessions, not letting your characters say everything they're thinking, and pacing yourself on releasing information. Many of you took the time to share your own dialogue struggles and asked some great questions. I'll get to them all - it's just going to take a couple posts!

Here are some more ways to write good dialogue:

Don't let it be all about your main character

Oh, boy, was I ever guilty of this as a new writer. And even now I lapse into this during my first drafts.

Any 30 Rock fans out there? My all time favorite exchange on that show is from last season where Liz (Tina Fey) and Jack (Alec Baldwin) accidentally get married. Liz - who is the main character - yells, "I'm sorry you got caught up in another one of Liz Lemon's adventures!" And Jack says, "My adventures. I am the protagonist!"

In the dandelion story, all the dialogue is Paige-focused. Even when two other characters are talking, they are talking about Paige. She's the protagonist - who else would they be talking about?

Themselves. That's the way it works in real life. Haven't we all had the experience where we walk away from a conversation and think, "I could tell you anything you want to know about them ... but I don't think they know a thing about me!" We're all guilty of being focused on our problems, our lives, our fears - make your characters guilty of it too!

Beware of the info dump

'DSCN0211' photo (c) 2009, Marion Doss - license:

One of my new writing pet peeves is an exchange that looks like this:

"Sally, how long have we known each other?"
"For 10 years."
"That's why I'm giving you this 10-carat diamond."

I've seen variations of this on TV, in books, movies. Makes me crazy! Because that's not the kind of thing we say to each other. I never turn to my husband with moony eyes and say, "Honey, how long have we been married?"

Not only is it information we both know, it's information we both know that we both know.

Now, I might say, "I can't believe we've been married for 7 years," or, "I can't believe you've put up with me for 7 years," but I've yet to say to him, "How long have we been married?"

I see this kind of info dumping a lot with dates. Like, "Since today is Wednesday, do you have that report for me?" Or like in this little gem from the dandelion story:

"My father ... is being transferred at the end of June."
"The end of June?!" he exploded.  "We're a week into June already!"

That sounds so forced to me. It's much more natural, I think, if Carter says, "That's, like, 3 weeks away!" (There are other things wrong, of course. Like that Carter "explodes." And I'm not even sure Paige should be including a time frame yet, but that falls more under "pacing" than it does "info dumping.")

Think about your characters and what their motivations are for saying what they're saying. And for-the-benefit-of-the-reader is not a good enough motivation.

Not everyone talks the same

One time I was having a conversation with my mom about a person who was angry, and my mother said, "She has a bee in her bonnet, that's for sure."

She has a what?

"Bee in her bonnet" is something I would never say. But to my mother - who watches old movies, reads historical fiction, and was raised by Oklahomans - it seemed like a very natural thing to say.

It's also important to pay attention to word choices. When I go grocery shopping, I'll say, "I went to the grocery store." When my best friend, Roseanna, goes grocery shopping, she says, "I did some marketing." Or if you're in you 30s or 40s, headphones are called headphones. If you're younger, headphones are earbuds.

Tonya from our wonderful Go Teen Writers community brought up that she struggles with her antagonist's dialogue. I do too. Because my main character and those who support her make sense to me, and those who oppose her do not. At least not early on when I'm writing.

This is where that "Why?" question becomes so important. It's not enough for someone to just be mean to your character or to serve as a blockade. You must ask Why? Like:

Why is Autumn being mean to Sabrina?
Because she's jealous that Patrick likes Sabrina instead.
If Autumn is angry with Sabrina ... then why is Autumn also made at Alden for the poor way he treated Sabrina?
Because deep down she loves Sabrina and knows she deserved to be treated better. Also because if Alden had treated Sabrina the way he should have, the two of them would be together and Patrick would be free.

The only way to achieve the feat of your characters sounding, behaving, and thinking differently than each other is to spend time mulling over who they all are, where they come from, and what is motivating them at this moment in time.

Early on in my first draft, I find that difficult. But by the time I've spent 70,000 words exploring these people, it starts to click. This snippet comes from a manuscript of mine, and it falls in the last 25ish pages:

“I didn’t mean to date Glen.” Mom says it so quietly at first I’m not sure I heard correctly. “I went to the market that day for very simple things—milk, arugula, and butter. And then Glen…”

Roseanna commented that my choices for "simple things" said a lot about my character., but I honestly hadn't thought much about it. By that time, I knew my character's mom well enough, and I had a recipe in my head that she made all the time, and it included arugula.

There's still a lot more to cover about dialogue, so stay tuned for part three!

Tomorrow is news day around here - if you have news you'd like to celebrate, please email it to me at Stephanie(at) with "News Day" in the subject line. Remember news can be anything from starting a new project to joining a critique group to winning a contest!

Have a great Wednesday, everyone!


  1. You ought to have heard the debate a friend of mine and I had in college about whether it was appropriate to call it "the market" if it was not outdoors. I brought him a bag from my local supermarket that said "Martin's Food Market," went into the whole "supermarket" thing . . . nope, he wasn't convinced, LOL. So I try to make sure no characters of mine say "marketing" unless they're from my region. ;-)

  2. Oh, boy did I need this post. The part that stood out to me most was the part about characters needing to be different. Sometimes I've had to 'dispose' of characters because they were sounding too much like another of my characters, and they weren't really necessary. Thanks, Stephanie!

    Hahaha. Roseanna, your comment made me laugh so hard. I think I'm going to start calling it a market. :D

  3. Hi Stephanie!
    I stumbled upon your blog for the first time yesterday. I have enjoyed reading the past few posts (especially the ones about dialogue...I am with you...I can't leave the "e" off the end...haha!)

    What great pearls of diagloging wisdom! I will be taking such advice to my own novel. Thank you!

    The "market" comments remind me of a time when a friend and I went to the grocery store. Without hesitating, Tiffany told me to grab a buggy. Ha! I laughed so hard my lungs were burning for air! We lived in South Florida. Normal people called them grocery or shopping carts. Though it was funny, it goes to show that those differences make people (and characters) unique. I am bound and determined to use Tiffany's sweet southern vernacular in a novel.

    Happy Wednesday!


  4. Hmm, I need to look at the dialect more. Happy to have you, Lana!

  5. Lana, I love your name. :) And your blog is cool, too. :)

    I had to reread that part about buggy vs. "shopping cart" twice to get the meaning, since I live in SC and they ARE buggies. :) "Shopping cart?" Interesting!

    This so whacked me, Stephanie! I remember that NextGen session you had about every character being the protagonist in their own stories. This post today was a good reminder of that! ;)

  6. Haha. I love how we all think the others say strange things. Here in WI we just call them 'carts,' and leave off the 'shopping.' Also, we just say 'store,' or 'supermarket.' My sister once told me: "I didn't know we Wisconsonians had any accent until I asked Dad to get some eggs and he brought home sage."

  7. At least for me, the big debates are: garbage vs. trash, and the pronunciation of "water" Water, or wuder. (I say trash, and say it both ways, which ever way comes out first.)


  8. LOL, Becki and Alyson! Hilarious! Here "water" is neither "water" or "wuder." It's "watah." Who needs that "r" anyway?

  9. We shop at a bunch of places, so it either comes out as the specific place or just plain old "grocery store"


  10. I loved this post, especially the part about making the characters unique and different.
    And these comments made me smile! :) The big debate in my family is: pop vs. soda. I lived in Mississippi for eight years and moved back to Michigan about three years ago, so half my family says the northern "pop" and half say "soda". :)
    I'm more partial to pop, but I don't really care much. It tastes the same either way. ;)

  11. Lana, welcome! So glad you're here. South Florida is such a diverse place to live. Lots of characters :)

    Rachelle, really? I've never heard them called buggies! How funny.

    Clarebear, indeed pop vs. soda is a very heated debate. In Kansas, just about everyone calls it pop. I'm from California, so everyone in my family says "Coke" whether they mean Coke or Dr. Pepper or Sprite. So if you say to me, "I'll have a Coke," I'll probably say to you, "What kind?"

  12. Hey, I LOVE this post! It's helping me out so so much. As far as making my characters different, I think I have that down. I base characters on people, and each person is different. My characters then take on their own personalities, and none are the same. I just love how it happens that way! :D

    Now as for the debates xD These posts made me crack up! I say "store" for grocery store. I don't think I've ever used "market." I say "cart" instead of grocery cart. Some people I know call it a buggy! :D One word that I've always been bugged about is ROOF! I pronounce it Roof, and get that ooooo sound in there. Yet, I know some people who call it a RUF!

  13. Heehee.. My uncle calls them buggies, too! He's from Ohio. I had no idea it was so widespread! It's amazing to me how diverse the States are. I don't notice any accent or speech peculiarities that I may have, but I laugh when my mid western friends say "warsh" for wash and when my southern friend says "might could"! But when I travel, people ask "hey, are you from the southwest?" What gave it away ? :)

  14. "Buggies" and "Grocery carts" are called trolley's over here. I love how we all have different names for everything! :D

    Great post! I wrote the first draft of my novel back in March this year, and then started writing it again about twenty times -- I have a folder called "Countless Drafts, Rewrites and Restarts."

    But now I'm not writing and I'm gathering ideas; asking so many questions! I did the randomest thing -- I wrote down some of my questions, and put my iPod on shuffle and... wrote down the song as the answer! Believe it or not, I actually learnt a couple of things. It's fun, anyway.

    I got my sister and we decided to act out part of the first scene. Oh, it was hilarious -- we've pretty much got no idea what we're talking about, but it's fun, anyway.

    We've decided to get out the old Bratz dolls and roleplay with them.

    Just some random things and ways to get some ideas, and it's a load of fun, haha!:D

  15. Awesome post, Stephanie :) So helpful! Especially the part about making each character unique :D
    I've never called a shopping cart anything other than "trolley" in every day life, though! I don't have a strong Australian accent, but I sometimes I say random things in a New Zealand accent for no apparent reason XD I haven't even been over to the country!

  16. Random thinker, we in WI also call it a RUF. We also tend to lean on our 'Rs' heavily, which I wasn't even really aware of until a vocal coach pointed it out to me. :D

  17. Jordanna, I didn't even realize we say 'warsh,' but I guess I do kinda hear it in my speech. Haha. Thanks for pointing it out to me! :D

  18. This is such a great post, but I just have to argue. I'm only fifteen, but headphones are Most. Definitely. Not. Earbuds. The only buds I know of are the little green clumps that appear on branches in spring - and those do NOT belong on my ears.
    Sorry. Had to get that off my chest. My brother calls them earbuds and it drives me berserck.

  19. Oh, dear, Emily. Did not mean to awaken all this anger in you :)

    1. Haha, I'm reading old posts and comments today and saw this. I have since learned the difference between headphones (over-the-ear) and earbuds (the little ones that go inside the ear). Don't know what I was thinking last December :P

  20. Emii, the song as the answer! I'm going to have to try that... :)

  21. About the pacing for Paige telling Carter she is moving, i am a military kid and we move every 2-3 years and i always tell people the 'when' when i tell them i am moving. It generally goes like this:
    Me: (trying not to sound all sad and stuff) I have bad news.
    Friend: (hearing the non-paniced tone of my voice)(yes that was sarcasm:) WHO DIED??!!
    Me: Nobody, but i am moving in April.

    There are several differnt responses i get when i share this news,
    1: (complete denial) "No you are not moving. Never tell me your moving again. Lying is a sin."
    2: (accepts it, but avoids it with a very unrealistic idea) "No you are not moving, you are going to live with me. You can hide in our attic."
    3: Says nothing. Just turns red and walks away. (I generally find these kinds of people crying in a corner later.)
    4: (meltdown) Starts hugging me and bawling. I have generally come to grips with the whole moving concept and cried out all my tears by the time i share the news and this responce always makes me feel a little akward.
    5: (the calm yet sad reaction) "Where are you going?"

    Well, thats it. I must say that the most common responces are (1) 2. (2) 1. and
    (3) 4. I hope this helps anyone who i writing a book that involves people moving!